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Amid the pandemic, journalism grad Aaron Gilchrist continues to deliver the news

At a virtual forum, the VCU alumnus shares his thoughts on adapting during COVID-19, the summer protests, and his personal journey in journalism.
Mallory Perryman and Aaron Gilchrist during a virtual forum

Right: Mallory Perryman, top left, and Aaron Gilchrist during a virtual forum Sept. 17 hosted by VCU's Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.

Virginia Commonwealth University graduate Aaron Gilchrist has spent 20 years in TV news and says 2020 has been perhaps the most challenging.

Gilchrist is the morning news anchor for the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., and his team has had to adapt during the pandemic. A newsroom is normally a bustling place, but now most of the employees work remotely. He is one of the few people in the building when the show airs.

“It’s the reality of the world we live in,” Gilchrist said. “The safest way for any of us to function is with distance. So keeping as few people in the newsroom as possible is the best way.”

On Thursday, Gilchrist shared his thoughts on the pandemic, the summer protests, and his personal journey in news during a virtual forum hosted by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The event was conducted over Facebook and moderated by Mallory Perryman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of journalism.

Gilchrist anchors the morning news with co-host Eun Yang. Prior the pandemic, they were seated inches away from each other. Now, they are situated across the room on opposite sides of the desk. He has to wear a mask when walking around the building. Every morning he sanitizes his keyboard and desk. It is a totally different environment than the newsroom he has been around his entire career.

“It’s weird to go into a workspace where you are used to dealing with people,” Gilchrist said. “Our business is one that is very collaborative. You get around a table and share ideas. Now, it’s just harder. It’s not impossible. [But] it’s harder to do that when you can’t look somebody in the eyes.”

Making it work

Gilchrist is proud that his team has found ways to keep providing news to the community and still keep people safe. The engineers have been able to use Zoom for interviews, and the reporters and photographers wear masks and use boom microphones. It’s not always easy, but it has kept the newsroom operating.

“Not stopping has been one of the most incredible things,” Gilchrist said. “When this pandemic hit, we sort of saw it coming and then all of a sudden everybody stopped and did everything differently.”

Technology has played a key role. Reporters are able to send scripts digitally and photographers can upload footage to the newsroom. The process is different, but the team has continued to provide people with necessary information.

Through it all, Gilchrist said storytelling and writing remain at the center of any good newscast. The news cannot function without people who are able to tell good stories and find ways to engage the audience.

aaron gilchrist
Gilchrist on campus at VCU in 2016.

In addition to the pandemic, the protests following the death of George Floyd dominated news this summer. Gilchrist said he has covered protests in the past, but he and others sense there is something different about these protests. He said the protests also have led to discussions among colleagues about language and the way people are portrayed in the media.

“We’ve had meetings where we talk about the issues that exist in our space around racial equality and gender equality, all these things that are in the public sphere and we have to report on,” Gilchrist said. “Let’s look at ourselves and see where we are and what we can do better.”

Newsrooms, he said, need to examine at their racial and gender mixture and add diversity. They need to be a place where different voices exist to give different perspectives. The newsroom and reporting need to look more like the communities they serve.

Starting in news at an early age

Gilchrist grew up in Richmond and knew early that he wanted a career in television news. In high school, he worked at a public service television station through Richmond Public Schools and got his first experience with broadcast television.

“People laugh when I say that I started at the educational access channel,” Gilchrist said. “It’s really where I learned how to look into a camera. It’s not something you think about until you are in that situation.”

He studied journalism at VCU and at 19 was hired at the NBC affiliate in Richmond. There, he learned about reporting and making judgment calls about what represented news. He admitted that he was probably overzealous in the beginning, telling reporters to check out everything that came over the police scanner. He worked hard. Gilchrist did not take a vacation over spring break, but instead spent time in the newsroom. He loved the energy and he was ambitious. After college, he was hired full-time, and eventually became the station’s morning news anchor before moving on to Washington.

“Work ethic is a big part of success,” Gilchrist said. “You have to be willing to do the hard work and find yourself in a comfortable place if you really want to be successful. There are long hours and inconvenient hours. There are days where you have to sit down with an editor at odd hours of the morning to talk through what the final package is going to be. Those are all things that make you better at the job. How hard you work shows in the work you produce.”

Both Perryman and Gilchrist acknowledged several times during the evening that it was strange conducting the conversation virtually. Gilchrist said he enjoys returning to his hometown and visiting his alma mater.

“We will be happy to have you back when we are sitting shoulder to shoulder,” Perryman said.

Gilchrist agreed.

“When things get a little more normal, I intend to be on campus,” he said.

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